Virginia Works Newsletter
December 2003


What do old boilers and modern buildings have in common? While boilers no longer power locomotives and industrial plants, they are still used as efficient sources of heat in many buildings. How many of you know whether your building uses a boiler for heating or hot water supply? If you don't know, you should. There are thousands of boilers and pressure vessels used to keep buildings comfortable.

So what are these pressure vessel things? Water heaters are pressure vessels that we are all familiar with. Just about everybody has one in their house. Water heaters can be thought of as low temperature and low pressure boilers.

Now, what does this have to do with safety? Simply put, malfunctioning boilers and water heaters are potential bombs… literally. An exploding water heater can knock a house off of its foundation. An exploding boiler can destroy a commercial cinder block building. Due to modern construction methods and periodic inspection programs, accidents involving boilers and pressure vessels are rare - but they do still occur. In 1982, an explosion caused by a malfunctioning 80-gallon water heater killed six elementary students and a teacher and injured 43 others. In 1984, a furnace explosion in a boiler injured three workers. In 1996, an elementary student was badly scalded while flushing a toilet - caused by a malfunctioning water heater. In 2000, a boiler in Virginia malfunctioned and blew the boiler out of the building and into the adjacent parking lot, injuring two employees. Virginia has a program requiring regular inspections of boilers and pressure vessels to prevent such tragedies, but we should all do our part to maintain safety.

Staff, custodial and administrative, needs to be attentive to this type of equipment. Know the location of all such equipment in your building and know how to shut it off. Know the warning signs of equipment malfunction: 1) a safety relief valve discharging steam and water, 2) pressure or temperature readings above the maximum allowed for the equipment, 3) scorched or burning paint on the skin casing, 4) faucets that are discharging extremely hot water and possibly steam. You do not need to be an experienced boiler operator or repair man to recognize these problems and take steps to alleviate them. The best course of action is to shut down the equipment by shutting off the fuel, air, or electricity supply. Removing the source of heat from the equipment allows it to cool down and ends the immediate problem. Qualified repair personnel should make repairs, never allow untrained workers to "tinker" with the equipment. By-passed safety controls have caused many accidents.


return to top | return to previous page